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Easing of harsh discipline in prisons will be good for inmates and the state

New York is taking a giant step ahead in the way it disciplines inmates of its prisons, and while its hand was forced on the question of solitary confinement, the change is significant, nonetheless, and was accomplished with the cooperation of the Cuomo administration.

The five-year, $62 million agreement reached last week restricts the use of solitary confinement without eliminating it, improves the quality of food provided to prisoners in solitary, gives them at least a little bathroom privacy and improves their recreational opportunities. It also allows them a monthly telephone call.

The problems with extended solitary confinement have been well documented and criticized by observers from all sides, including political conservatives along with the predictable liberals. It constitutes a kind of torture and, over long terms in solitary, can lead to mental illness.

It’s easy to see why. In New York, some 4,000 inmates are confined in concrete, 6-by-10-foot cells, with little human contact, and sometimes none. They have no access to rehabilitative programs and are on a diet that can be restricted to what the New York Times described as a foul-tasting brick of bread and potatoes known as “the loaf.”

The treatment can last for years. While the average length of stay in solitary confinement has declined to 190 days from 225 days last year, more than 50 inmates have been in solitary confinement for more than five years. Sometimes, those psychologically damaged people are then released to the community with no effort made at smoothing the transition.

The agreement was reached after three years of negotiations begun after the New York Civil Liberties Union sued the state over the conditions of solitary confinement. Under its terms, the number of infractions punishable by solitary confinement will be cut in half and violations that once gave corrections officers discretion to impose long sentences – infractions such as “disobeying orders” – will now carry a maximum term of 30 days.

For most prisoners, the maximum sentence will be three months, except for assaults, and 30 days for most prisoners who commit a nonviolent infraction for the first time. Those in long-term isolation will be able to make one telephone call per month. And while recreation in the past meant one hour spent alone in a chain-link cage, under the new agreement, they will be allowed to leave their cells and spend the recreation time with others in the solitary block for two hours, three times a week.

It’s a more humane approach to what is nonetheless a necessary kind of punishment. Keeping control of a prison population, especially one that may include people serving life sentences, requires the ability to impose internal discipline.

There is clearly room for additional reforms, given that states including Washington and Colorado have already done more than New York. But this represents a significant and welcome change.

One problem could be whether the corrections officers union will accept the agreement, or challenge it in court. The union was not part of these negotiations, but given the reasonable outcome, the union should resist the urge to challenge it. And the union has its own issues to deal with, given the violence that prison guards have been shown to commit on prisoners.

Prisons are clearly necessary as a deterrent and a mechanism to protect the public from violent criminals. But the Constitution still matters, and it prohibits punishments that are cruel and unusual. Years in solitary confinement counts as both. This is a good agreement.